Opinion: Busting myths about the four-day week

Even before New Zealand faced its second level 4 lockdown, this time to combat the incursion of the Delta variant, it was clear the future of work had arrived.

The demands and functions of organisations, consumers and workers had been remade in the digital age, and earlier experiments with flexible work models have now become a bona fide movement, with companies around the United States trialling and implementing a four-day week and other productivity-focused, reduced-hour models that maintain profitability while allowing people to be better at home and at work. With the rising popularity of the movement, a few myths have emerged – and I will dispel them here:

1. It's only for white-collar businesses and workers.

There is an assumption that a four-day week is easier to implement in an office environment, where outputs can be somewhat amorphous or hard to gauge, compared with an assembly line, warehouse, factory or other setting where productivity is often measured in more concrete ways. Certainly, many efficiencies can be found in most office environments, where people typically dawdle in conversations around the water cooler or are regularly checking in on social media apps.

However, the current lockdown proves that immense flexibility is possible in every sector, with the right management and the right conditions. For instance, to maintain critical infrastructure and mitigate the risk of food distribution problems caused by another Covid outbreak, Countdown’s spokesperson Kiri Hannifin told RNZ the company had earlier implemented split shifts in distribution centres. It is not hard to see how in a Covid world, workers in any sector could be given more flexibility in part for safety reasons, to protect colleagues and allow extra time for regular testing, vaccination and so on.

Globally, one of the leading examples of the aptitude of the four-day week to other types of workplaces is found in Germany, where, as of late March 2021, the country’s largest trade union, IG Metall, agreed a 2.3 per cent wage increase as part of a switch to a four-day week in a key industrial region: 3.9 million metal and engineering workers are benefitting. Not to put too fine a point on it, German industrial culture is not known for slacking or poor productivity – so this change would not be happening in one of the world’s richest and most productive nations unless there was a strong economic and social case for it.

2. Policymakers' hands are tied

Not true – and in fact, just this week we have seen a stunning turn in the four-day week movement with California Democratic Representative Mark Takano’s introduction of legislation that would reduce the standard work week to 32 hours. The bill proposes lowering the maximum hours threshold for overtime compensation, so all non-exempt employees can receive this compensation for any hours worked over 32 hours.

The bill has been endorsed by a number of labour organisations and by the Economic Policy Institute, and Takano says the impetus is “to explore all possible means of ensuring our modern business model prioritises productivity, fair pay and an improved quality of life for workers.”

Takano’s bill follows major developments elsewhere:

• In Spain, the government is backing a pilot for businesses interested in trialling a four-day week;
• In Japan, new national economic policy guidelines include recommendations that companies permit their staff to work four days a week (the goals are to address entrenched economic and social issues and to give people better work-life balance);
• In Iceland, a series of four-day week trials led by central and local government between 2015 and 2019 have yielded the renegotiation of working patterns by unions and the transition of 86 per cent of the country’s workforce to either shorter hours for the same pay or the right to that arrangement. Iceland’s news will no doubt have been received with interest by neighbouring Finland, whose Prime Minister Sanna Marin said last year that a four-day week is worth looking into.
• And a Member of Parliament in Singapore, Louis Chua, has brought up the idea of a four-day week in that country, posting on social media in July 2021 that he has asked the Government, as the “largest employer in Singapore” to consider a trial, on the basis that flexible working arrangements and a “seismic shift in workforce culture” have been one of the silver linings of the pandemic. Chua posited that society as a whole would benefit from a shorter work week – “better mental health, productivity, and agency felt on the individual level”.

All of this is to say that the four-day week movement does not belong solely to businesses or workers or any one group, and governments and policymakers have a central role to play in changing how we work for the better. Clearly, a number of them already get it, and leaders in even the most chronically hard-working nations such as the US and Japan are seeing that it’s time for change – just like when the world shifted to a five-day week – and they are prepared to advocate and lay the groundwork for it.

3. A four-day week means a three-day weekend.

This is one of the most common myths or misconceptions that has emerged since the four-day week was first trialled by Andrew Barnes at Perpetual Guardian. In fact, the four-day week is a 100:80:100 model (100 per cent productivity in 80 per cent of the time for 100 per cent pay) that explicitly does not specify which hours are to be worked or on what days of the week.

It is a flexible work model that encourages finding efficiencies in the workplace to allow workers to do more productive work in less time, thereby maintaining profitability and productivity while permitting more downtime, so people can thrive. For some organisations, closing the doors from Friday to Sunday (for example) is feasible; for others, if they need to maintain consistent customer service for more than four days a week, a rolling schedule works better – it keeps the business running on normal hours but ensures each staff member gets three days off (or equivalent hours away from work) in a seven-day cycle.

4. Individuals cannot make a difference on their own.

This is patently untrue; after all, the now-global four-day week movement began just three years ago with one founder and entrepreneur conducting a trial in his own 240-person business. Right now, any business leader can connect with 4 Day Week Global and other businesses to find out how a trial in their own business and sector would work, and anyone, including employees who are interested in flexible work models, can sign the petition at action.4dayweek.com, share the petition with their network, and/or donate to support the transition of more businesses to a four-day week in the United States and around the world.

History is rife with examples of how one person triggered a groundswell of support and changed the world – you’re about to read how a single factory, in the early 1900s, heralded what would become a ubiquitous five-day week – and this movement is no exception.

5. The four-day week requires sacrificing profitability

Every piece of data we have gathered at 4 Day Week Global since the inception of the four-day week in 2018 dispels this myth. To emphasise, the four-day week is a productivity-focused, reduced-hours model, and when you concentrate on maintaining productivity, there is no reason profitability would slide.

When it comes to performance, and in particular maintaining the quality of customer experience and a healthy company culture, leaders will succeed best not by making decrees from the top but by putting the power in the hands of employees and asking them to tell company leadership how a flexible work model will best deliver the existing levels of productivity, profitability and staff and customer satisfaction.

Leaders will find the response is enthusiastic and employees are motivated to make it work – after all, a paid day off each week is quite a carrot – but different folk will likely have different preferences for their own flexible work model. Some people will ask to work shorter hours five days a week to accommodate school pick-up or drop-off; others will be happy to take a day off mid-week to upskill on a course, engage in their favourite hobby or spend time with family. The most successful four-day week trials have been those that treat staff and customer needs as equally important.

6. Whole countries will never shift away from a five-day week.

We know this isn’t true because historically there has been enormous reinvention of how humans work and massive expansions of the rights of workers, with organised labour driving new legislation and changing conventions across industries and entire countries.

In the 1800s the standard work week was Monday to Saturday until, in 1908, a mill in the New England region of the United States became the first American factory to introduce a five-day week, so Jewish workers could observe their Sabbath and Christian workers could be reassured their Sunday Sabbath remained sacrosanct. Other factories followed suit, and the Great Depression standardised the two-day weekend because, in the words of a report in the Atlantic, “shorter hours were considered a remedy to underemployment”.

Sound familiar? The same argument holds for the four-day week as once did for five days’ labour; only now, in the digital era, we can use shorter work weeks and flexible work models to ensure greater efficiency in every workplace while assuaging the growing mental health burden on workers around the world. To those who insist a five-day week is the only way, we need only present the extensive historical data showing humans in their millions have quite easily shortened the work week before – largely within the past 75 to 100 years – and are poised to do so again.

– Charlotte Lockhart is chief executive of 4 Day Week Global, an initiative started off the back of Andrew Barnes’ four-day week experiment at Perpetual Guardian.

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